Teen Hunger in the Ozarks
Childhood hunger is often talked about, but teenagers, who exist in the upper end of the age spectrum, are often overlooked.
Food insecurity is widespread among teenagers in southwest Missouri, but because teens don’t want their peers to know they’re struggling, they often avoid asking for help. Fortunately, teens in Lebanon, MO have a place to get help and avoid embarrassment.
Project 360 exists to serve teenagers experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. Patti Brayfield, the founder and executive director, believes that teen hunger and homelessness are often caused by issues at home. Parental abuse, neglect, foster care and the use of drugs and alcohol by parents are among the many situations teenagers dealing with hunger typically face.
“I feel like it’s overlooked because they don’t have a voice, and they don’t make themselves identifiable….no one imagines that the parents could care so little,” she shared.
At the Sound House—the organization’s 3,000 square-foot youth resource center serving 13-20-year-olds—teens can get help with homework, apply for jobs, have a meal together and visit the food pantry. The organization serves between 20 and 30 kids each day after school.
“The pantry is the most important thing we do. These kids are undernourished. Even though there might be food stamps at home, that doesn’t mean they’re getting fed,” Patty said. “One of our teenagers told me that her mom got food stamps every month, but she never got the benefit of the food because her mother kept it hidden in her bedroom.”
Project 360 gets deli meat, bread, canned fruit and veggies, microwavable meals, canned tuna and other easy-to-prepare foods from Ozarks Food Harvest. Since many of the teens served are couch-surfing or living in their cars, simple preparation is essential.
“It’s pretty rewarding when you know that someone is managing okay because of the food you have been able to give them,” Patti shared.
Because of their difficult home lives, most of the teens served are just trying to persist through tough situations until they can live on their own. School also causes stress, as they’re trying to hide the fact that there are problems at home, or that they’re sleeping on someone else’s couch every night.
The Sound House is a safe place for kids to relax and receive much-needed assistance. Volunteers and staff offer comfort, counsel and, most importantly, a place where everyone is heard and valued.
“These kids are often the outsiders and misfits at school. At Sound House, they’re often surprised to find people who are as miserable as they
are. They consider Sound House a respite between the chaos at school and having to go home,” Patti said.
Ozarks Food Harvest is grateful for the work Project 360 is doing to serve teens in need while bringing awareness to the reality of adolescent hunger. Food insecurity affects people of all ages, and together, we can solve it.